Frank Rossi leaves behind an iconically Pittsburgh culture of harmonic community through banjo and goodwill

Forward by Lauren Stauffer

On Tuesday, February 12, 2019 founder of Pittsburgh Banjo Club, Frank Rossi, passed away. Legendary in the Pittsburgh music community, and well known to Northside for the free, public Wednesday night rehearsals held in Deutschtown since 2004, Rossi brought people of all walks of life together on the Northside. Some even say Banjo Night is the happiest Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

In our 2013 coverage of the 25th anniversary of Pittsburgh Banjo Club (PBC), Rossi said that banjo night is so successful because it’s something to be enjoyed by an older and younger crowd. “Older people like it because it brings back memories of the songs when they were young and young people like it because they’ve never heard it before,” Rossi said.

“Frank was a showman,” said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference and Elks Lodge #339 member, “and everyone loved the show.” Fatla notes PBC is comprised of all volunteers who have been giving back to the community for over 30 years. Band members entertained for free and donated all funds raised at their shows to local charitable causes.

Last year we published Kelly Chiodi’s biography of Frank Rossi, original version below, in honor of his Lifetime Achievement Award and republish it today in tribute to his legacy.

Pittsburgh Banjo Club will be holding their weekly rehearsal tonight, Wednesday, February 13, 2019 from 8-11pm  at Elks Lodge #339 at 400 Cedar Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

Northside Leadership Conference Honors Frank Rossi with Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2017 Annual Dinner.

Biography and photos courtesy of Kelly Chiodi

Frank Rossi was born in Ambridge, PA in 1935 and spent most of his childhood there until his family moved to the Greenfield area of Pittsburgh while he was in high school. He joined the Air Force in 1953 and was stationed as a radio navigator based in Saudi Arabia. After serving four years, he applied to the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to become an Air Traffic Controller.

While waiting to hear about that position, he came back to Pittsburgh and met Rita Besavitch from Polish Hill. They were married in May of 1959 and moved to Garden City, Long Island, New York when he was hired as an air traffic controller at JFK Airport. He was eventually moved to Port Jefferson Station in New York and it was there he and Rita raised their three daughters, Elaine, Marilyn and Charlotte.

Being as personable as he is, somewhere along the way, Frank was asked to host a retirement party for an outgoing air traffic controller supervisor and in doing so, had the crowd laughing and so entertained, that over the next years, his skills were commanded and he was flown all over the country for various executive-level retirement functions. Being a natural entertainer with a quick wit and the ability to take command of a stage and charm audiences won him lots of opportunities.

In 1975, he met Mike Currao, a member of the Long Island Banjo Society, who encouraged him to take up the banjo and gave him lessons. Mike says, “Frank was truly a great student mainly because he loved the banjo and was always very dedicated to the preservation of the instrument.” The next year, Frank joined the group, traveled from Port Jefferson, LI to Amityville, LI every Friday night and, being the all-in person that he is, held various positions including on the Board of Directors, Booking Agent, Scheduler, Publicity Director and ultimately President of the Club during their 25th Anniversary year.

When his turn for retirement came around in 1988, Frank and Rita decided to move back to their hometown of Pittsburgh and found a house in Ross Township. By December of that year, he had word out via newspaper ads and word-of-mouth that he was looking to put together a banjo band of his own and The Pittsburgh Banjo Club was born in the basement of that yellow-brick, Ross Township home. Frank struck a deal for a weekly rehearsal space at The Penn Café in Bloomfield, and after a few venue switches, the club moved their Wednesday night rehearsal to The James Street Tavern until 2004, when the restaurant closed their doors. The Allegheny Elks Lodge #339 on Cedar Avenue took the PBC in and they’ve been there and thriving under his leadership every Wednesday night since.

Frank has always given 100% to every cause he’s taken up, so all the while he was raising a family, hosting executive retirement celebrations, heading the Long Island Banjo Society, and eventually starting a new banjo club in a new city, he was also President of Banjos Unlimited, an international organization for banjo players and ultimately the editor of The Resonator, their publication; He was on the board of directors for The Fretted Instrument Guild of America; and proudly a member of just about any fraternal organization including The Moose, The Eagles, The Lions, and of course The Elks, where he became an active member. He even knows the answer to the question, “Are you a Turtle?”

All of his endeavors were formed with idealistic core values in mind. With the PBC, it’s always been important to Frank to donate proceeds from sales and performances to charity, but not just any…he wants to know that those dollars will have a big impact on small organizations and the more local the better. It’s in that vein that the PBC has donated some $150,000 over its lifetime to causes e.g. SLB Radio, The Light of Life Mission, The Allegheny Branch of the Carnegie Library system, The Deutschtown Music Festival, Johnny Cash Night, Northside Ministries Food Bank, The Mattress Factory, Northside Commons Fountain Restoration, The Elks Home Service Fund, and many others.

Well deserved recognition has included:
-Receiving The Volunteer in the Arts Award from WQED in 1990;
-Being inducted into the National Banjo Hall of Fame (Oklahoma City, OK) in 2001;
-Presented with The Jefferson Award from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2009;
-25 Years of Dedicated Service Award from Banjos Unlimited;
-The Charlie Gardella Lifetime Achievement Award from the Long Island Banjo Society in 2013;
-Elk of the Year at the Allegheny Elks #339 in 2013
-and Lifetime Achievement Award from Northside Leadership Conference in 2017

This article was sponsored by The Pittsburgh Banjo Club. The Pittsburgh Banjo Club is a non-profit organization made up of men and women from all walks of life, with a common goal – the encouragement and preservation of the tenor banjo. An all-volunteer organization, The PBC has donated over $150,000 to mostly local Pittsburgh Charities in its 28 years.

The Lifetime Achievement Awards are nominated by and voted on by the Northside Leadership Conference Board of Directors &  Annual Dinner Committee. The Northside Leadership Conference is a coalition of Northside community-based organizations, committed to addressing mutual concerns through a united approach in order to promote and enhance the vitality, quality of life, and image of Pittsburgh’s Northside.